The Value of Philosophy in Our Daily Lives

Question: How is philosophy valuable in our daily lives?

Tim Maudlin: Well if you ask me about what philosophy is, to be engrained, like what – there are detailed philosophical theses of various sorts.  And in day-to-day life, it’s probably not all that – it’s not going to be all that affected by choice among some of these.  If you think of philosophy, and I think this is a bit better and more important.  If you think of the job of the philosopher methodologically is to very carefully figure out by what reasoning you arrived at some conclusion, or why is it you hold some belief.  What are the grounds for it?  How did you get to it and are those grounds good grounds for holding it?  To carefully review arguments and unearth their presuppositions and then hold those presuppositions up to the light of day and ask whether you want to believe them.  That’s what I would say is the foundation of philosophical method.  

And this sort of thing that even say in philosophy of physics, physicists are not likely to do.  They’re not likely to take the foundational principles that they’re using and hold them up to the light of day and ask them whether they should believe in them.  They’re more likely to say, well this is just the principles we work with, accept them, use them, and don’t ask about them.  That’s ore or less the story any undergraduate would get about quantum mechanics as they say, “Shut up and calculate.  Don’t ask me why these are the rules.  Just follow them.”  

I think in everybody’s every day life, that habit of mind would make a tremendous difference.  I think the amount of belief that people hold for no good reason is distressing.  And that the level of argumentation in our political life is abysmal.  And the room for improvement, of clarity of thought of clarity of expression is almost unlimited.  And if philosophy could help the world, it would be much more – instead of by having people adopt some philosophical doctrine about this or that, it would be to bring them a bit closer to the care and precision of thought that is characteristic, I think particularly characteristic of philosophical work. 

Recorded September 17, 2010

Interviewed by David Hirschman

Using the tools of philosophic inquiry to ask questions about the world around us can bring clarity of thought of clarity of expression.

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Originally Poe envisioned a parrot, not a raven

Quoth the parrot — "Nevermore."

The Green Parrot by Vincent van Gogh, 1886
Culture & Religion

By his mid-30s, Edgar Allan Poe was not only weary by the hardships of poverty, but also regularly intoxicated — by more than just macabre visions. Despite this, the Gothic writer lucidly insisted that there was still a method to his madness when it came to devising poems.

In an essay titled "The Philosophy of Composition," published in 1846 in Graham's Magazine, Poe divulged how his creative process worked, particularly in regard to his most famous poem: "No one point in [The Raven's] composition is rerferrible either to accident or intuition… the work proceeded step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."

That said, contrary to the popular idea that Edgar Allan Poe penned his poems in single bursts of inspiration, The Raven did not pour out from his quivering quill in one fell swoop. Rather it came about through a calculative process — one that included making some pretty notable changes, even to its avian subject.

As an example of how his mind worked, Poe describes in his essay that originally the bird that flew across the dreary scene immortalized in the poem was actually… a parrot.

Poe had pondered ways he could have his one word refrain, "nevermore," continuously repeated throughout the poem. With that aim, he instantly thought of a parrot because it was a creature capable of uttering words. However, as quickly as Poe had found his feathered literary device, he became concerned with the bird's form on top of its important function.

And as it turns out, the parrot, a pretty resplendent bird, did not perch so well in Poe's mind because it didn't fit the mood he was going for—melancholy, "the most legitimate of all the poetical tones." In solving this dilemma in terms of imagery, he made adjustments to its plumage, altogether transforming the parrot — bestowing it with a black raiment.

"Very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone," Poe explained in his piece in Graham's. "I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven — the bird of ill omen — monotonously repeating the one word, 'Nevermore,' at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone…"

It was with these aesthetic calculations that Poe ousted the colorful bird that first flew into his mind, and welcomed the darker one that fluttered in:

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore…

The details of the poem — including the bird's appearance — needed to all blend together, like a recipe, to bring out the somber concept he was trying to convey: the descent into madness of a bereaved lover, a man lamenting the loss of a beautiful woman named Lenore. With that in mind, quoth the parrot — "nevermore" just doesn't have the same grave effect.

* * *

If you'd like to read more about Edgar Allan Poe, click here to review how his contemporaries tried to defame him in an attempt to thwart his success.

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